The Wine Salt Lick
Curious about what salinity in wine is? It's far more complicated than "minerality."
I love salt. I'm that person who stashes a vial of it in her bag for travel, a secret stash, so whether no matter how fancy the dive, I can spike that circle of tomato
es or the pea soup. I draw the line at adding salt to my glass (although I know a guy who takes the pepper grinder to his Grenache. No joke). But I do love sensing it in wine. Those salty Atlantic ones like Muscadet or Albariño or Finos? Absolutely.
Am I alone? Not at all. A few years ago, I began to notice words like ‘salty’, ‘salinity’ and ‘briny’ show up in plenty of positive tasting notes. All things vinous and brackish became signifier du jour. You don’t have take my word for it. In their excellent book, The Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste, Rajat Parr and Jordan McKay wrote, “minerality, electricity, or whatever you want to call it (salinity and saltiness are now fashionable) has some connection to wine vitality.” One of the reasons for this popularity is that it’s become the approved stand-in for those shy of using ‘minerality’, which provokes many a scientist’s ire as they argue that a vine cannot chew on a rock.
Curious to learn if there was a historical prerogative for the nomenclature, I scoured works of taste-oriented enology professors including Maynard Amerine from UC Davis and his Bordeaux counterpart Emile Peynaud (born in 1911 and 1912 respectively). No mentions of salinity. I peered into the works of the granddaddy of natural wine, Jules Chauvet; Nada. The only historical mention I uncovered was a negative. In the 1891 Annual Report of the Board of State Viticultural Commissioners the term ‘brininess’ was viewed as a defect in wines that came from seaside vines. Salt then was like smoke taint today. What a difference a century makes. Today the quality is celebrated.
But I was to find out that salt was not that simple. Back when the world was normal, I was in Soho tasting through a bunch of Australian wines. A friend called me over to check out a few wines from the Basket Range region. “What do you think?” she asked. One red, one white, the wines were made naturally but from purchased grapes of unknown provenance. I scribbled down in my tasting note “salty!” Then I turned to her and said, “These are wild. Sure, salty, but from what?” It was almost too much. That’s when I started to wonder: are all salts created equal? I chewed on that pickle for a while then I headed to my phone book.
I rang up the two people who could address the issue with science. I started with Oregon’s Mimi Casteel, the charismatic regenerative viticulture expert and winemaker (Hope Well Wine). She was agnostic about whether or not we can taste the differences in the shades of salinity. However, she was perfectly clear that the result could come from many possible origins. The sea and from healthy soils, surely but three other likely culprits could be (questionable) fertilizers, soil treatments, as well as salinated irrigation water. In Australia salination from irrigation has been a serious problem creating dangerously alkaline soils or acidic soils. It’s so problematic that Australia is researching saline-resistant rootstock, although, I had to wonder, why not just change farming to something more organic?
Casteel said that funny business in the winery could also contribute. The use of sulfites contributes potassium or sodium to the wine which can affect the perception of saltiness on the tongue. Bentonite (clay) and other fining processes will also influence the final chemistry of the solution, and thus the resulting palate of the wine. “Knowing the origin of the salinity you perceive in wine may be too hard without knowing all the factors,” she said. “In other words, I would like to think we could taste the difference between a goût de terroir salinity from an oceanside vineyard versus the salinity of a wine that is higher in potassium because of rocky, shallow soil with low magnesium, versus a sulfite reaction, but I haven’t put it to a blind comprising with the requisite information to compare to.”
The other person on the end of the phone was Montreal-based scientist, Benôit Marsan. He’s the rare scientist willing not to crucify the word minerality and he is trying to bring data to the controversial term. After trying to get him to talk to me as a layman in simple language he agreed with the premise that not all salts are perceived similarly in the mouth. “Sodium salts are salty (positive if not too concentrated), whereas other metal ions (such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron) are more bitter and sometimes give a metallic taste (can be positive depending on the individual tolerance to bitterness).” However, and this is fascinating, “Succinic acid, an acid present in broccoli, rhubarb and sauerkraut also gives a salty taste, (as well as bitter and sour).” Well, farmer beware and be careful if you’re growing broccoli or rhubarb underneath your vines. Marsan also said that highly acidic wines can stimulate the salt receptor taste bud cells, which is enhanced at colder temperatures. So, perhaps what we taste as salt is actually the perception of salt.
I will never know what created those salty Australians. They were made naturally so it wasn’t the use of Camden tabs to sulfur the wine or other additives. The vines weren’t irrigated but it could have been runoff from neighbors. Nevertheless, because of them, and the journey they took me on, these days when I’m about to scribble “brackish,” as a note, I slow down and question; talented terroir? A positive of farming and fermentation? Or a negative from chemical additives in the winery or soil salination from the likes of irrigation and fertilizers? I consider whether the salt in that Sauvignon is as compelling as a flake of Maldon salt atop a tomato slice that might come from certain soils, from grapes influenced by the sea breeze. I take notice; does the stuff smack me so hard it’s like I just swallowed the Dead Sea? It’s my hunch that the latter points to a flaw or even fault, while the former, whether perception or the real thing, indicates we might be in the presence of greatness. I might never truly know but meanwhile, it’s given a whole other meaning to whether a wine worth its salt.
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